ISSUE 1-2012
Mykola Riabchuk
Екатерина Шинкарук Григорий Михайлов
Владимир Воронов
Петр Мареш
Pavel Vitek Петр Грусс

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

ISSUE 1, 2012

Russian presidential elections had only one storyline: will Vladimir Putin be elected in the first or the second round? Taking into consideration that elections in Russia during last decade are rather referendum on confidence in Putin and his party than a real democratic competition Putin needed to win in the first round. And when Vladimir Vladimirovich wants something he gets it. However, it becomes more and more difficult Various aspects of Putin´s regime Russkii vopros discussed with Jadwiga Rogoża, expert of Russian department of The Centre for Eastern Studies.

Russian presidential election on 4 March 2012 will be completion of the scenario launched on 2 March 2008 when Dmitry Medvedev -as a Putin´s golem- was elected. Medvedev´s role was evident: to preserve Kremlin for forces closely joined with Vladimir Putin and after four years to overhand his formal power back to Putin´s hand. Hardly anybody has doubted that a different development of situation would be possible but let´s try to do a small speculation. Did Medvedev have any chance to emancipate himself and to play more dignified role than he played?

One of the key reasons for choosing Medvedev as Putin’s successor was Medvedev’s personality: lack of evident political ambitions, lack of determination to play any leading position, and finally lack of some kind of political nerve and grit to stand for his ideas and risk conflicts with Vladimir Putin. This is why, despite extensive formal powers of the president, Medvedev never became a co-decider in key political and economic issues.

This is a feature of the Russian personalistic political regime: it is not formal issues that determine someone’s real influence and position, but rather informal relations. In this sense, Medvedev had extensive constitutional authority that he could not use, because of some informal agreements. For example, he never dismissed any of the ministers of Putin’s government, even though he harshly criticized some of them. He never gained any real influence over the budget and the economy. His domain was foreign policy (where he also acted according to the agreements with Putin), whereas in domestic policy Medvedev’s role was reduced to rhetoric. The rhetoric was different from Putin’s and was welcomed by the emerging middle class. However, with time it turned out that Medvedev cannot or does not wish to deliver on his liberal promises. To sum up: Medvedev had a very limited room for maneuver but we have not seen any serious attempts to broaden it. We will never find out what his real intentions actually were. Judging by his actions, he wanted to be re-elected in 2012 as the representative of this elite, not as a rebel, who would stand against the existing model and people who had formed it.

Indeed, Medvedev was a very loyal to his creator. In this context a question could emerge whether also Putin will be so polite with his ward. In the case of the probable worsening of economic situation in Russia, could Medvedev -as a Prime Minister responsible for economy- become a scapegoat taking on himself all sins also committed during Putin´s premiership? Medvedev in the position of Prime Minister will be in more complicated situation than Putin was.

Medvedev has already been used as a scapegoat during the December parliamentary election – shortly before the election he was appointed head of the United Russia’s election campaign, whereas Putin – the party’s leader - has distanced himself from the party. Putin who had his own election ahead of him (March 2012), was thus trying to dissociate himself from the party that was rapidly losing popularity and gaining an increasing army of opponents. Moreover, Putin did not want to be the one responsible for the party’s weak results and the scandals that accompanied the election. As a result, Dmitry Medvedev was once again asked to do the ‘dirty work’.

Medvedev consent to undertake unrewarding tasks has become a kind of a scheme. All this suggests that there is some kind of a deal between Putin and Medvedev, with the latter agreeing to play a role in Putin’s plan. Becoming a Prime Minister is another stage of this deal. Traditionally, this position is rather unrewarding – whenever problems occur, PM is reprimanded by the president. Under president Putin, Medvedev may become a “whipping boy”, who will be responsible for different problems. These problems are inevitable – another wave of the economic crisis, falling support for the government and expected brutalization of politics to calm down the protests. One may only speculate what kind of reward Medvedev is getting for being such a loyal (albeit often humiliated) partner. There have been speculations that Medvedev, as a member of the ruling elite, has been receiving certain financial benefits – media have mentioned a palace in the Russian resort of Anapa, among other things.

Apart from successful preserving power for Putin what Medvedev managed to do with Russia? Where do you see pluses and minuses of his presidency?

The answer to this question depends on whose perspective we are taking. From the perspective of Vladimir Putin and the ruling elite, Medvedev’s was quite a favourable presidency: the balance of power was maintained, Putin remained the leader and his close associates continued their economic expansion, finally, Medvedev’s liberal rhetoric was welcomed in the West but did not translate into real action at home. On the other hand, the opponents of this regime were bitterly disappointed with Medvedev’s presidency, for all the aforementioned reasons. They had expected a change that never happened.

From an expert’s viewpoint, Medvedev had a very limited scope of action and therefore the results of his own, independent decisions were rather minute. However, one aspect of his presidency – change of rhetoric and the improvement of political atmosphere – did bring some consequences. It has accelerated the process that the Russian society was undergoing. The society was evolving, as the living standards were improving and Internet was getting ever more popular. Apart from financial expectations, a part of the Russian society (middle class) developed greater aspirations - they wanted more political freedoms, they wanted to have a political representation. This “new” society no longer wanted to stick to the social contract that Putin offered in 2000: loyalty in exchange for financial benefits. They were certainly encouraged by Medvedev’s liberal rhetoric at the beginning of his presidency and this sped up the process of the social activation that we are witnessing in Russia at the moment.

By the end of Medvedev presidency we, really, could observe some interesting processes linked with disappointment openly expressed by a certain part of Russian society. These processes can become more intensive if the economic situation is getting worse. Almost during all Medvedev´s presidency we could hear words about modernization which should be realized by Putin as Prime Minister but results have not been too impressive. In what condition is Putin overhanding Russian economy to Medvedev? Do you remember Putin´s promise that Russian GDP will grow about 10% per year?

The key issue about the condition of the Russian economy is the fact that neither Putin nor Medvedev have not tackled its eternal and systemic problems – a) its dependency on the situation on the raw material markets, and b) its archaic structure – domination of huge state-owned or state-controlled enterprises, with a thin layer of small and medium businesses. As a result, even though the Russian economy has noted a significant GDP growth, it still relies on the oil and gas prices, and the state remains an excessive (and often oppressive) regulator of the economy, including private initiative. Apart from being a serious impediment for economic development, the mentioned problems are also the reason for the discontent of the middle class. The Russian middle class wants more economic freedoms and more chances to develop their own businesses. These people feel constrained by tangled legal regulations and constant inspections by tax service, police and other bodies. They also object to the economic vision offered by Vladimir Putin who sees modernization as a top-down process, initiated by the state, especially the arms industry. This visions leaves little room for individual initiative, be it economic, social or political initiatives. This is something that the middle class objects to.

In your analysis "In Putin´s shadow. Dmitry Medvedev Presidency" you wrote that government could lose gradually its legitimacy and various forces could use open possibilities. You mentioned nationalist groups. How serious danger these groups could mean? Some fictions elaborating future of Russia, e.g. Icon by Forsyth, develop scenario when complicated economic situation opens space for nationalists who are standing on the threshold of Kremlin. Only cooperation of good boys from KGB and Western secret services manages to prevent the danger. Increasing impact of nationalistic forces in Russia has been evident in long-term perspective. President Putin at the beginning of his presidency released genie from the bottle and a certain time he played successfully with this dangerous toy. Now, it seems, genie has started living its own life. Nationalist have not still found leading, generally person but it is only matter of time. Is there some person who could become such a leader?

Nationalism is widespread in Russia. However, it has to be specified that it is not radical nationalism. Russian citizens would not support radical nationalist groups that have attacked and slaughtered immigrants (see numerous shocking cases of Tajik immigrants killed and their heads cut off). This is something Russians are scared of themselves, and something that the state tries to counteract. What is deeply rooted in the Russian society is moderate, domestic nationalism, often called “legal xenophobia”. Russians opt for stricter control over immigrants, for the reduction of financial transfers to the North Caucasus, they are afraid and shocked by the (often arrogant) conduct of Caucasians in the streets of Russian cities, finally, they are anxious about Muslims.

As these moods are prevalent is the Russian society, the government tries to play them and employ moderate anti-immigrant rhetoric to gain greater support. This is what Vladimir Putin has done in his recent agenda statement concerning national affairs. He has announced the introduction of stricter immigration criteria. On the other hand, Putin has to cautiously balance on this nationalist ground. He is anxious about losing control over these moods, because he knows that Russian labour market needs more immigrants, and Russia itself is a multi-national country, so if xenophobia gets out of control, it may seriously shake the Russian domestic scene.

At the moment, there are many nationalist groups, some of them announced illegal by the state. They differ by their level of radicalism and also by their attitude to the government. The “new generation” groups, made of younger nationalists, share clear anti-government moods, e.g. the 11 December movement. But there are groups led by long-time leaders (such as Alexandr Belov) who have links to the Kremlin and act as a pro-government nationalist force. Therefore it should not be expected that nationalists will create a united front, select one leader and will have a consistent approach towards the state. There will be different groups, from moderate ones (with Alexey Navalny as a possible leader) to more imperialistic-nationalist groups (with politicians like Dmitry Rogozin), finally to some radical, Nazi-type groups. Some of them may cooperate with democratic oppositions (Navalny), some will support the state (Rogozin), and some will remain outside official politics (radical Nazi-like groups).

During last Putin´s presidency a considerable lack of democracy was evident. To make this fact more digestible Kremlin´s ideologist came with various characteristics of Putin´s regime. We could meet definitions like "sovereign democracy" or "managed democracy". However, it is not easy to predict anything in Russia I would like to ask you what sort of democracy can we expect in Russia after Putin´s comeback to Kremlin? After all there is somewhat different Russia where civil society starts being aware of its potential.

Definitely, Russian democracy needs an adjective. Putin is facing serious opposition on the part of citizens, so his comeback may be accompanied by a more stricter policy aimed at calming protest moods. For sure, opposition leaders will be harassed and attempts to intimidate Internet activists will be made. Thus, the “managed democracy” may turn into a more authoritarian model. The question is, whether one can successfully apply the same old, force methods to the society that has changed significantly. A great part of the society is no longer susceptible to Putin’s rhetoric, no longer believes his “story”, does not share his vision. Applying force in this case may bring opposite results. Today’s society and a large part of the elite does not want an anachronistic, authoritarian leader. The question is, when this attitude prevails not only in the society, but also in the ruling elite.

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Петр Грусс
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